We talk to survivors of domestic abuse every day. They reach out to us online, help to design our projects, and sit among us in the office. The people affected by domestic abuse are our colleagues, our friends, our families and neighbours.
What always strikes me when speaking with anyone who has experienced domestic abuse is their desire for change. Rather than merely patching up its effects, survivors want to stop abuse before it starts. They believe that understanding the dynamics and misuses of power at the heart of domestic abuse is key to preventing people from becoming future victims.
The government today announced a draft Domestic Abuse Bill to tackle an epidemic that sees two women murdered every week in England and Wales, and a further two million people affected by domestic abuse across the UK. These are shocking figures. If that wasn’t enough, domestic abuse costs the British economy £66bn annually – more than the combined costs of obesity, alcohol, drug and cigarette use. The harrowing reality is that thousands of people abuse those they claim to love, causing staggering damage to individuals and communities across the UK.
We’re delighted that the government’s domestic abuse bill will shift responsibility onto the perpetrators rather than the victims of domestic abuse. Survivors have told us they wish to see tougher sentencing and stiffer repercussions where court orders are not upheld. But they also want to see community programmes aimed at rehabilitating and changing perpetrators’ behaviours.
The government’s Bill will ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims in family courts, and encourage greater use of specialist domestic abuse courts. But we would like to see this go further. Ending an abuser’s right to unsupervised child contact once they have been charged would help protect children, who often become the unseen victims of domestic abuse.
The Bill seeks to make a complex set of laws more coherent. Currently, there are 1.1 million cases of domestic abuse recorded by police each year but only 100,000 convictions. We need the police and the courts to be more confident about how to use existing laws effectively, rather than giving short sentences for charges like criminal damage where an underlying domestic situation is far more serious.
To truly address domestic abuse, we need a holistic approach that spans government departments and recognises the impact of domestic abuse in every area of public life. The NHS is a fulcrum in domestic abuse cases; people are more likely to seek help from a doctor about an abuse-related health problem than they are from the police. Employing domestic abuse specialists in A&Es, and giving GPs the tools to refer suspected victims for the right support, would save lives and reduce the cost of domestic abuse for the NHS – currently an estimated £1.73 billion.
This Bill is an ambitious first step, made possible by survivors of domestic abuse speaking out about these issues. Hundreds of survivors have shared their experiences with us. We owe it to them now to take this bill even further and end domestic abuse for everyone, for good.
Suzanne Jacob is chief executive of domestic abuse charity SafeLives.